The greatest miracles in the lives of St. Titus Brandsma and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton may have been their joy despite tragic circumstances.
Or maybe they weren’t miracles, but the natural consequences of God’s grace and authentic faith.
Whatever the case, it’s a lesson we all need to learn, as we face a summer of war overseas, turmoil in Washington and vandalism in churches nationwide.
St. Titus Brandsma died during World War II at Dachau, with a smile on his face.
When he beatified the Dutch priest, Pope John Paul II said, “He had a smile for everyone, a word of understanding, a gesture of kindness,” and his “constant vein of optimism” always faced “hate with love.”
“Until the end, he remained a source of support and hope for the other prisoners,” said the Pope. And not just for prisoners. Remarkably, he converted the nurse who killed him.
Fr. Brandsma was put to death by lethal injection in the Dachau concentration camp on July 26, 1942. He gave his rosary to the nurse who murdered him. We know this because she reported it herself at a Dachau war crimes trial in 1956:
“I sensed immediately that he felt very sorry for me,” she said. “Once he took me by the hand and said, ‘What a poor girl you are. I pray for you a lot.’”
The nurse realized that “I have killed a holy man,” and eventually became a Catholic.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton learned early on that life was short and sometimes painful. But she soldiered on.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in 1774. Her mother died in 1777 and her baby sister died in 1778. She would later lose her husband and see two of her five children die before her own death at 46—tragically early by modern standards. After her husband’s death, Elizabeth became a Catholic, brought her children into the Church, and became a religious sister and foundress of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.
New York Cardinal Terrence Cooke offered a Mass of thanksgiving for Elizabeth’s beatification and said “In Elizabeth Ann Seton, we have a, saint for our times.” She was, he said: “a woman of faith for a time of doubt and uncertainty,” “a women of love for a time of coldness and division” and above all “a woman of hope for a time of crisis and discouragement.”
What these two saints had in common was absolute trust in God.
St. Titus Brandsma received his faith from his humble beginnings. Anno Brandsma—his given name—was born in the Netherlands on Feb. 23, 1881. If you picture a Dutch village as a windmill surrounded by cow farms, you are picturing his hometown of Oegeklooster. He so admired his father Titus that he took his name when he entered religious life with the Carmelites.
As a young friar and priest, Titus helped found the new Catholic University of Nijmegen (now Radboud University) in the Netherlands and was appointed an adviser to the staff that supported 30 Catholic newspapers in the Netherlands. He is considered the patron saint of journalists.
He began to preach warnings about a Second World War all over the world, including in the United States in 1935.
“The Nazi movement is a black lie,” he said. “It is pagan.” In 1940, his warnings proved true as Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands and began persecuting and exterminating Jews and other targeted groups.
When the Nazis demanded that Dutch newspapers print Nazi propaganda, the Archbishop of Utrecht tasked Father Brandsma with telling the country’s Catholic editors to refuse. Father Brandsma personally visited 14 different editors. The Gestapo arrested him on January 19, 1942.
Father Brandsma was cheerful during his arrest.
“Imagine my going to jail at the age of 60!” Father Brandsma joked with his captors.
The Carmelite priest spent three months in his first prison, composing a biography of St. Teresa of Avila, and meditations on the Stations of the Cross, which were inspired by the bleak—and controversial—Way of the Cross drawings by Albert Servaes.
On March 12, 1942, Titus was taken to a work camp in the central Netherlands where he was denied pen and paper. There, he cheerfully shared his meager rations and ministered to his fellow prisoners by hearing confessions and visiting the dying.
His health deteriorated rapidly, and he requested, but was denied, parole. Instead, he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp.
Titus kept his cheerfulness and told acquaintances, “In Dachau, I will meet friends, and God the Lord is everywhere.” But he knew what to expect there. “I could be in Dachau for a very long time. It doesn’t have such a very good name that you really long for it.”
His tranquility reportedly irritated his captors who, according to a Carmelite biographer, “beat him mercilessly with fists, clubs, and boards. They kicked, punched, and gouged him, drawing blood and oftentimes leaving him nearly unconscious in the mud.”
Nonetheless, Titus told his fellow prisoners, “Do not yield to hatred. We are here in a dark tunnel, but we have to go on. At the end, an eternal light is shining for us.”
After one beating, he told a fellow Carmelite, “Don’t have pity on me. I had Jesus with me in the Eucharist,” showing a host he had hidden in a tobacco pouch.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s cheer was also well known. The New York Times reported on it in 1974.
“Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, whose sainthood was formally decreed yesterday by Pope Paul VI, once stood in the festive Wall Street throng that saw George Washington sworn in as the nation’s first President,” the paper reported. She was 14 and attended with her father, it said: “Significantly, her formative years coincided with those of the country itself, and her qualities of optimism, practicality, and independence could be considered a reflection of the traits of the emerging culture.”
As Father Joseph Dirvin put it in his biography of Mother Seton: “She taught hard work as an essential means of salvation and perfection. She was a woman of hope and unconquerable optimism, a pioneer who stood on the soil of a vast land and felt the first stirrings of promise.”
She, too, believed in the light at the end of the tunnel. “Perseverance is a great grace — to go on gaining and advancing every day, we must be resolute, and bear and suffer what our blessed forerunners did.”
Saints Titus Brandsma and Elizabeth Seton embodied St. Paul’s inspiring words:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; … Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
St. Titus expressed the same thing this way: “I am seized by a supreme joy which is above all other joys.”
If God is with us, why should we be afraid? The joy of the saints is proof of the Christian faith.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Public Domain
To read all the Seton Reflections, click here.